KOBE: HOW A CLEANER SAYS GOODBYE

December 18, 2017

(I originally wrote this column for Yahoo's The Vertical on the day Kobe retired in 2016. I'm reposting it here today in honor of his jersey retirement by the Lakers. #24 #8 #Cleaner

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If you ask the greats whether they really want the classic Farewell Tour, most would say no; they just want to play the way they’ve always played. The long goodbye takes them out of their game. They achieved excellence by shutting out distraction and drama; the Farewell Tour is about taking it all in. It’s a cruel daily reminder that you’ve devoted your entire life to one thing, and it’s about to end. It’s like breaking up with your girlfriend every single day. You don’t really want to, but you know it’s time to say goodbye.

This is how an icon says goodbye: On Sunday, with only three games left in his career, Kobe Bryant put up 35 points in 27 minutes in a loss against the Houston Rockets and was perfect from the free-throw line.

Just because I don’t, doesn’t mean I can’t.

Whatever he’s lost, most players will never have.

I began working with Kobe in 2008, after he called Michael Jordan for advice: His knees were killing him, he said. He wasn’t sure he could sustain the level of physical excellence he demanded of himself.

Michael, who had already retired, made one suggestion:

“Use my guy,” 23 told 24. “Call Grover.”

He did.

I’m often asked to compare MJ and Kobe, how they worked and trained. Like MJ, Kobe would take your heart and your balls and everything in between, and then glare at you for taking too long to grow more guts for him to rip apart. It didn’t matter whether you were a teammate or opponent, no one was spared. He challenged you for everything you had: I’m taking it all, you gonna fight me for it? Those who did earned his respect. Those who didn’t had no chance. Ever.

He wanted to understand everything we did, why we did it, how it all worked. Some days we’d hit the gym twice a day, and again at night, working on conditioning, a new shot, a new detail, an issue he wanted to resolve, something he noticed in the mountains of film he watched every day. My phone would ring at 3 a.m., and we’d head to work.

At some point during his workouts – each one around 90 minutes – he’d glare in my direction and ask: What we got left? It didn’t matter how I answered, or if I answered at all. His work ethic never wavered.

You can’t begin to measure the intensity and ferocity of his insatiable desire to win, a mindset that defined him from the moment he entered the league. On draft day in 1996, when everyone else shook the commissioner’s hand and went out to celebrate, Kobe found a gym. Had to put up 1,000 shots.

No surprise that he’s the only remaining active player from that draft class.

He expected everyone around him – teammates, staff, trainers, business associates, friends – to match his drive and commitment, and wouldn’t – or couldn’t – accept their inability to reach his level, their willingness to settle for less. If I can do this, why can’t you? When they celebrated a great shot in a losing game, when they celebrated wins in a losing season, his reaction was pure Kobe: We’ve won nothing. You’ve done nothing. Go do more.

He was all about more. More work, more effort, more wins. After the 81-point game in 2006, while everyone else saw his achievement, he saw Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game, the record he didn’t achieve. More.

Our work together ended at the end of 2012, four months before the Achilles’ injury that precipitated so many other injuries; he was feeling good at that point and we went our separate ways. I’m proud of what we accomplished together, and will always be there for him.

What did I learn about him during those years? I wrote this in my book “Relentless,” and forgive me for repeating it here, but I can’t say it any other way: He was the ultimate athletic predator. He’d lock in on his target, and from that moment, he didn’t feel anything except the raw desire to dominate. I can only compare him to a cold-blooded killer, a lion stalking his prey. Attack. Done. Next.

Which has made it interesting to watch him during this season of goodbyes.

Playing with a depleted body, on a depleted team with no chance to win, he had no choice but to finally let go. Maybe if the Lakers had been in position to win something, anything … maybe if they could have made a run for that eighth seed … maybe he would have stayed in the hunt just a little longer. But with nothing on the line except his sheer will to finish the season, he exhaled for the first time in his career.

Goodbye, Kobe.

He transformed from assassin to ambassador. Instead of the dark scowl before, during and after games, there was an actual smile. Instead of an insatiable killer, he was now a supportive teacher. He hugged opponents. He laughed with teammates. He gave the fans something they’d never seen from him on a basketball court: peace.

He played 20 seasons as the hated villain, and walked away as the beloved hero.

This week, Kobe fans around the globe will say their final farewells as he walks off the court for the last time, but they’re too late.

He’s already gone.